Working Life of a Modern Languages Student

Note that the subject information given below is presented in the context of general guidelines to the working life of a student reading Modern Languages as all or part of their degree course. For official information on each specific course (e.g. Modern Languages and Linguistics, English and Modern Languages, etc), please consult its dedicated page on the University Admissions website, under ‘courses’. More detailed information is available in the undergraduate handbook for each language. Please note that each handbook is valid only for the academic year stated and may be subject to revision.

Course Structure

The basic structure of the Modern Languages degree course is available on the University website.

In Year 1, alongside your language work, you follow a set course of literature in each language you study.* This course is designed to acquaint you with a range of different periods or genres of literature, as well as to introduce you to different ways of thinking and writing about texts; you will practise both commentaries and essays.

*If you are doing French or German ‘sole’, you will follow, in addition, options in film, theory, and thought (French ‘sole’) or film, introduction to medieval studies, and thought (German ‘sole’).'

At the end of the first year you are formally assessed in examinations on the year’s language work (50%) and literary study (50%). Also at this time you will consult with your subject tutors about choosing your options for your Final Honours course (i.e. the subjects you prepare for your Final Exams at the end of Year 4). As there is no formal assessment at the end of Year 2, these options are spread across Years 2 and 4. A maximum of 50% (less for ‘sole’, joint school, and language plus linguistics students) of your final exams will be on language (translation into and from the target language, together with an essay in the language, a listening comprehension and an oral examination). The remaining 50% will be a combination of some/all of the following: literature papers, linguistics papers, and one from a selection of special subjects which include European cinema, literary theory, and advanced translation amongst others. All students must study a period of literature, so a significant portion of your time will inevitably be spent reading, thinking and writing about literature. All language papers are assessed by a final examination, as are most literary and linguistic options. Some special subjects (literary and non-literary) are assessed by a portfolio of essays, and you may, in addition, choose to do an optional extended essay, which is also a coursework piece.


Lectures take place in the Faculty and are given by tutors from across the University (including your own!). Attendance is not compulsory and you will not be assessed on the content of lectures; indeed, they are not intended primarily as lessons in a subject or as the source of answers to the essay questions your own tutor may have set you.

In the first year, you can expect to attend about 3 hours of lectures per language; these will be tied in closely with the texts you are studying, presenting a sense of the different contexts in which the works can be viewed (literary, social, political, etc.) and offering critical perspectives for you to engage with and, indeed, challenge! In the second and fourth years, you will find a whole variety of lectures on offer and are, of course, welcome to attend lectures in areas that you are not studying, but which are simply of interest to you, in Modern Languages or in other Faculties. All lectures lists are available on line at the start of each term. Note that a given series of lectures will happen once in a given year; they will not be repeated every term and may not happen again in your final year. Several lecturers make the handouts or slides from their lectures available on the University intranet, known as ‘Weblearn’. This enables you to spend more of your time in the lecture listening and thinking, rather than scribbling down notes frantically, thereby developing your critical faculties; it can also be helpful if you have had to miss a lecture owing to a timetable clash. Lectures are also a good way of meeting people doing your course at other colleges, and of sharing particular enthusiasms, especially at smaller, special interest lectures.

Tutorials and Classes

In Modern Languages, tutors will refer to ‘classes’ for language work and ‘tutorials’ or occasionally ‘seminars’ for literature and other non-language work. In the larger subjects, like French, German, Spanish, and Italian, language is mostly taught in your College, though some languages also have Faculty-based classes. Subjects with smaller student numbers, such as Czech, Russian, Modern Greek, and the Middle Eastern languages (Arabic, Turkish, and Persian) have centralized language teaching, which builds a sense of community across the subject group. Most first-year literature work takes place in your College, but you will usually find yourself venturing out to other colleges for at least some tutorials in your second and fourth years in order to work with specialists in the particular options you have chosen.

The number of tutorials you have per language in a week may vary, but it will usually be one or two; you will always be expected to have prepared some work for every tutorial, and this will usually be an essay or a commentary. You will find that the majority of your time each week is spent on reading, thinking, and writing in preparation for your tutorial. For most tutorials you will be paired with another student; this enables lively debate and discussion of your different ideas in response to a particular essay title or passage of text. Your tutor will invite you to justify your views in relation to alternative perspectives or approaches, introducing new material and new lines of development for the arguments you have presented.

You can expect to have two or three hours of language classes per language per week; there will usually be at least one piece of translation work to complete each week, and additional preparation for oral or grammar classes. Classes are taught in small groups, so there is plenty of opportunity to ask questions about points of uncertainty, to go over a particular grammar point, or to discuss issues of style and register in relation to a given passage. Classes in writing, speaking, and translating into the language are normally taught by native-speakers. You will encounter a wide variety of translation exercise: literary descriptive, journalistic, narrative, comic, exposing you to diverse types of language use. In addition to your College classes, you can attend classes arranged by the University Language Centre to consolidate points of grammar or develop your essay-writing skills in the target language. The Language Centre also has excellent on-line resources as well as facilities for practising your spoken language.

‘Ab initio’ Languages

A number of languages can be started from scratch. For details of which languages are offered ‘ab initio’, see the Modern Languages Faculty website. In order to accelerate your progress in this language, you will have a greater number of classes per week and be expected to invest more independent time, for example in vocabulary learning, in your language study. If you study Russian as a beginner, you are not examined on literature at the end of the first year.

Writing Commentaries and Essays

No-one expects you to arrive in Oxford with already-perfected skills of commentary and essay writing. It is quite natural to feel uncertain about the tasks initially, and to take a while to feel comfortable with them. Because your term-time tutorial work is not formally assessed, this gives you the ideal opportunity to be adventurous in trying out different styles and approaches to your work; there is no one ‘model’ of essay writing. Your tutors will provide feedback, verbally and in written comments, and you are always welcome to ask if you feel you need more specific guidance, for example in how to structure your argument. Your skills will develop throughout your university career, and most students feel that they have made tremendous progress when they compare an essay from their second year with one from the end of their fourth year. The Modern Languages course, with its special subject and extended essay options, also offers the opportunity of producing longer pieces of written work (up to 8,000 words, in the case of the extended essay), which present different challenges and possibilities for expanding your writing skills.

You will probably not receive a mark on your weekly tutorial essays; your tutor’s comments, however, will give you an indication of your progress, and you will receive marks in the College tests you sit at the start of each term, known as ‘Collections’: these enable you to revisit the previous term’s work so you know, for example, which areas you might need to spend time consolidating or want to develop further during your year abroad.

Reading Texts / Use of Vacations

Reading primary texts in the original language takes time, as does reading secondary material (scholarly books and articles). During term, you will be using the College and Faculty libraries to read, think about, and respond to secondary material when preparing your essays. It is vital that you are already well acquainted with the novels, poems, plays, or indeed, films you are due to study before term begins, referring to dictionaries as you read them for the first time (and thereby expanding your vocabulary and knowledge of syntactic structures). This will be your main task in the vacations. We understand that many students need to do work to earn money out of term time, but it is essential, if you are going to participate fully and successfully in your course, to set aside proper time for academic work, too. You should see vacation study as an integral part of the degree course.

Working Hours

Everyone works differently and finds they work most productively at different times of day, but it is important that you establish a pattern of work that enables you to fulfil all your academic commitments. Some people prefer to work in the privacy of their room, others prefer to do so in the library, seeing it as an ‘office’. Wherever your find you work best, you should be aiming to spend no less than 6 hours a day, on average, on personal study (i.e. in addition to tutorials, classes, and lectures). You need time not just to read the materials on your reading list, but also, and crucially, to reflect on them, develop your own arguments, and plan and structure your essays. Your tutors will always be most interested in how you have responded to what you’ve read and in your own thoughts in reaction to others’; it is not a question of trying to read through the greatest number of items on your reading list and tick them off like a check-list; far more important is learning to react critically to what you read.

Year Abroad

Your year abroad (see the Faculty website for details of the different activities you can undertake) is an integral part of the degree course: not only is it an exceptionally valuable opportunity for developing your oral fluency in the foreign language, it is a period you can use to consolidate work from your second year, expanding your reading, doing research for an extended essay, and preparing for your final year. Some students also find that professional connections they establish during that year are useful for their future career after graduation. If you are studying Russian as a beginner or are taking the joint schools degree of European and Middle Eastern languages, you will spend the second, rather than the third, year abroad, following a specially designed language course.